Schumacher itching to make it three in a row

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The Independent Online

Championship leader Michael Schumacher, feeling fully fit after testing his form in a football friendly says he has high hopes for a third consecutive season victory in the San Marino Grand Prix.

Ferrari's German driver, who was sidelined for seven races last year after he broke his right leg crashing at a corner in Silverstone, enters Sunday's third World Championship race with 20 points against the double zero of his McLaren's rivals - defending World Champion Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.

Schumacher, who is trying to give Ferrari its first world drivers title since 1979, is off to his best season start in four years scoring straight wins in Australia and Brazil.

Hakkinen was stopped by engine problems in both races while Coulthard did not finish in Australia and was disqualified, after placing second in Brazil, for the non-conformity of the front wing of his McLaren-Mercedes.

"I'm pretty happy about this situation, and very optimistic (about the next race)," said as he arrived in this central Italian town for the first European GP of the 17-round championship.

"We have 70 per cent chances to win here. Certainly we cannot think that McLaren problems are going to continue. I expect a McLaren reaction Sunday. But I'm confident," he added.

Schumacher said a charity match between drivers and an Italian amateur team, played at nearby Faenza on Wednesday night, was his first full soccer test since the Silverstone accident.

"I played well, but I missed four beautiful scoring opportunities. I feel fully fit," said the Ferrari driver, who's shooting for a second straight victory in Imola following his 1999 triumph ahead of Coulthard.

About 3,000 fans saw the drivers team win the charity match 2-1, with the deciding goal scored by Benetton's driver Giancarlo Fisichella.

"Both Ferrari cars are very competitive ... some pieces will be improved for Imola as the technical development of the car is going on race after race," Schumacher said.

The consecutive wins and his leadership in the championship were likely to have reaffirmed Schumacher's No. 1 role in the Italian team, initially questioned by newly signed Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello.

Schumacher parried questions about the team's hierarchy and about possible psychological problems he may experience when the Championship moves to Silverstone, for the British GP, on April 23.

"I believe I will not have strange feelings in Silverstone, when approaching that corner (where he went off and crashed against the safety barriers)," Schumacher said. "I'm focusing on Imola right now."

Coulthard said he was disappointed with FIA's decision to reject McLaren's appeal against his disqualification.

Noting that the non-confirmity of the front wing was of only 7 millimeters, Coulthard said that wings are often damaged during the race and steward should take that into account.

"Now we must make sure it does not happen again. In Imola we have the opportunity to go for the pole and a win," Coulthard said.

About McLaren being without points after two races, Coulthard noted that Ferrari won the manufacturers title last year rallying from a difficult season start.

"We can hope to do the same this year," he added.